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Gestational Decrim

by | November 8, 2019

This piece was first published in print in Salvage #7: Towards the Proletarocene. The latest issue can be ordered individually here, or as part of a subscription, available here. Where our back issues are still available, they can be ordered here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and some online content, including PDFs of all of our back issues, is only available to subscribers

‘Liberté, égalité, paternité!’ In France, a coalition headed up by the neoreactionary network ‘La Manif Pour Tous’ (the Demo for Everyone) is calling for a mass demonstration on 6 October 2019 to protest against a proposed law that would extend access to certain Assisted Reproductive Technologies – such as IVF and artificial insemination, known locally as ‘PMA’ – to single women and to same-sex female couples. The plan is for the activists, many of whom are on loan from the ranks of the far right, to gather together for the purposes of denouncing ‘la PMA sans père et la GPA’, that is to say, ‘medically assisted procreation without dads’ … and surrogacy. (But surrogacy, as it happens, has long been banned under French law, and – given the tenor of contemporary debates around surrogacy, including in queer and feminist circles – there is little to suggest that the proposed law would do anything to change this.)

With the French Parliament now poised to discuss the aforesaid proposal to extend ‘PMA’ access to previously excluded groups – ‘PMA for everyone!’ – there will now be plenty of occasion for reactionaries all across France to reiterate their restrictive definitions of terms such as ‘family’, ‘filiation’ and ‘kinship’, for them to downplay the social dimensions of these relations, and for them to brandish anew the supposed primacy of ‘the natural’ and ‘the biological’.

This is why we so urgently need, today, the kind of exciting and inspiring perspectives that Sophie Lewis develops in Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. Her book combines an argument for decriminalising surrogacy with a thoroughgoing stance of solidarity with struggles waged by gestational labourers everywhere, be they mothers or not, paid or unpaid. 

In so doing, Sophie Lewis revives a form of utopianism that, regrettably, had practically disappeared from the scene of contemporary feminism. She joyfully invites us to think and live, otherwise, beyond the matrix of heteronormativity that structures how we imagine our families and our relationships with others.

The following interview with Sophie was originally conducted in French (by me, Morgane Merteuil) for the Paris-based autonomous online platform Acta, and has been translated into English by Sophie.

MORGANE MERTEUIL: Full Surrogacy Now is timely; its publication has taken place at an extremely turbulent juncture for reproductive justice worldwide. Over the last few years, massive pro-choice (or pro-abortion) campaigns have arisen in Argentina, Ireland, Poland, and also in the US, where mobilisations have simultaneously served as cornerstones of the anti-Trump ‘resistance.’ The immense popularity of a narrative like The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been serialised since 2017 for television, has to be understood in this context, namely, the ascendant power of the far Right and the real threat to reproductive rights this poses. However, in the introductory chapter of Full Surrogacy Now, you submit a number of additional – more critical – explanations for the series’ appeal, citing the fascistic allure of the ‘reproductive dystopia’ as a genre. Can you explain why you do not share many feminists’ intense enthusiasm for The Handmaid’s Tale?

SOPHIE LEWIS: Hi, Morgane! Well, as you say, I am a utopian of sorts. But so, in a way, are The Handmaid’s Tale crowd. Their utopianism consists of the fact that they fantasise (kind of kinkily, let’s be real) about a tortured, rape-based situation so simple in its logic – and so very, very bad – that class divisions between women would just instantly fall away in the face of the bare necessity of FEMINISM. And my kink, on the other hand, is the belief that we can build a world in which no one at all ever analogises twenty-first-century cis-heteropatriarchal racial capitalism to the race-blind phallocratic-fascism scenario dreamed up by a bioconservative white-feminist sci-fi writer in the 1980s.

Let me explain what I mean. The resurgent, international struggle for access to abortion is, among other things, absolutely a class struggle. Or it should be. And it’s actually because of those dynamics, I would say, that the predominantly white-feminist fandom that formed a couple of years ago around #TheHandmaidsTale has – I’m pleased to say – dwindled dramatically. Because it is a class-erasive narrative that cannot actually connect to real-world, anti-capitalist reproductive justice mobilisations. As I say, its star is on the wane, but still, its popularity irritates me. Wired just proclaimed that ‘Handmaid’s Tale Garb’ is still ‘the Viral Protest Uniform of 2019’. Kamala Harris is sending fundraising emails declaring the actuality of the Tale. And something called The Handmaid Coalition™ – ‘a nonprofit political action group’ and ‘trademark of Action Together New Hampshire’ – appears to be taking donations towards robe-and-bonnet costumes that will be donned by unspecified Resisters to unspecified ends. But this all might seem innocuous enough as liberalism goes, so why do I beef, in particular, with The Handmaid’s Tale? Surely, amid the slew of ‘foetal heartbeat’ bills, the fact that a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness for thousands of people is not to be sniffed at. Indeed, it should not, but nor should one overrate the political participation the book directly inspires. There’s a reason why, as critic Rachel Symes writes, the Hulu version of the protagonist, especially in seasons two and three, ‘dives back into abject degradation’ every time she comes close to escaping it: ‘June keeps being borne backward into captivity, because her captivity tends to be the show’s narrative sweet spot.’ 

On its face, the identity that has coalesced around The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply opposed to forced gestation, which it misidentifies as an exclusively totalitarian instrument of governance. Underlyingly, though, the franchise paradoxically summons up a masochistic frisson and an oddly quiescent attendant stance vis-à-vis assaults on abortion access: a stance of ecstatic, crypto-religious mortification that plays out almost as prayer, as costumed stasis, as opposed to queer revolt. Downplaying the queerphobic, racial and class dynamics of fascism, Atwood’s narrative centres on what is often framed as ‘universal’ agony: coupled heterosexual infertility and childlessness. The separation of a mother from her daughter, on the one hand, and a human being’s coerced use as a breeder, on the other. Two excellent class-wide demands could readily have been extrapolated from this, namely, the first two axioms of the Reproductive Justice movements credo: the right not to be pregnant; and the right to collectively care for children in a safe environment. It is regrettable that the progressive dress-up Handmaids have on the whole been inspired to shout mostly about the former while omitting to campaign around the latter. 

The sterility apocalypse is a largely evil but seductive genre. Remember, the premise of the insurgent American fascists in this book – a premise which, bizarrely, I’ve not really seen anyone question – is that the infertility explosion, the collapse in birth-rates in that fictional universe, is a terrible thing. Of course, seen from a non-natalist point of view, the overriding political crisis in Gilead, as it is in the real world in 2019, is a border crisis. Sometimes misnamed a ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ crisis or (by white supremacists) a demographic or natality crisis, the crisis, properly viewed, is the border. But the fictional world of Gilead ultimately naturalises the necessity of the border. While it provides opportunities for Handmaids to flee, seeking asylum in Canada and so on, at root, it provides a space in which modern-day eugenic impulses – including xenophobic feminisms – can be covertly indulged according to the logic of a First World national natalist imperative. 

Lastly: rather than swallow whole the idea, indulged so luridly in The Handmaid’s Tale, that ‘surrogacy’ per se is the apogee of gynophobic violence, I want us to listen to the Black feminists who, at the same time as Atwood’s novel was published, were pointing out that these supposedly ‘new’ reproductive technologies were in fact nothing new. A ghoulish, deformed kind of surrogacy, in the sense of indentured subordination and bodily instrumentalisation in the service of white supremacy, has already been embedded at the core of US life for centuries. The philosopher Shellee Colen calls this structure of slow violence ‘reproductive stratification’, pointing to the myriad ways racialised and migrant women have parented their own children while simultaneously nursing, suckling and mothering the children of the bourgeoisie.

Black women had already been surrogates on the chattel plantation, and are still excluded from the property-relation of private motherhood in substantial ways even today. It is, as a result, Black communities, queer refugees from the nuclear household, and other communities excluded both from mainstream familiality and from mainstream (white) feminism who have elaborated practices of polymaternalism and alter-familial abundance. As a new wave of feminists including Alexis Pauline Gumbs contend, Black mamahood is always-already, in a sense, ‘queer’. So, keeping in mind the myriad models of ‘othermothering’ around the world (ie, forms of plural multi-gender mothering whereby kids belong to everyone) I want us to ask: can distributed maternity appear only as the effect of oppressive institutions and technologies? Can’t we, as communists, instead, imagine distributed procreation as transformative and productive of differences? These are not questions that the majority of those dressing up in white bonnets and red cloaks to declare ‘we are all reproductive slaves’ [sic] seem interested in posing.

In chapter two, you convincingly establish the similarities and overlaps between anti-surrogacy and anti-prostitution campaigning, insofar as both epitomise ‘an institutional feminist-humanitarianism that greases the wheels of imperial wars and justifies a heavy-handed ‘rescue industry’. Even as you insist on the terribleness of the working conditions people frequently experience within the gestational surrogacy industry (as in the sex industry), you condemn the real-world consequences of feminist ‘wrong abolitionisms’ in both these domains, and accuse the feminists in question of wanting to ‘abolish the commodification without abolishing the work’. Can you elaborate on why those who would criminalise surrogacy, in order to protect women, can never accomplish their stated aims via these means?

The most obvious reasons why RadFem and liberal antisurrogacy efforts cannot achieve liberation for all women have to do with all the usual limitations of top-down humanitarian missions and femonationalisms, such as the naïve attempts in carceral anti-trafficking circles to criminalise only ‘the buyer’, as though this could ever fail to adversely affect the seller of labour-power. For example, several of the nation-states that formerly served as transnational baby hubs implemented bans on commercial surrogacy in 2016. But, just as the cannier commentators predicted, surrogacy bans do not halt but actually fuel the baby trade, rendering gestational workers far more vulnerable than before. As with sex work, the question of being for or against surrogacy is thus largely irrelevant. The question is, why is it assumed that one should be more against surrogacy than against other risky jobs? And how does this charitable stance impact the people actually doing the work?

However, the more fundamental cleavage between anti-surrogacy feminisms and a putative feminism that would centre surrogates themselves in the struggle for reproductive justice, stems from a profound difference of opinion on the question of abolishing the private nuclear household and the propertarian heteronormative mode of procreation it serves – the question, as Shulamith Firestone termed it in the 1970s, of ‘children’s liberation’. Under present conditions, defining children’s liberation is necessarily a utopian project, but it was attempted in broad strokes by the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers who stated of children that in the future, ‘[t]hey will not belong to the patriarchy. They will not belong to us either. They will belong only to themselves.’

In contrast, in the anti-queer, anti-revolutionary and traditionalist world of anti-surrogacy militants, the very worst thing that could ever happen to a person is to be a child who becomes conscious of the fact that we belong to our parents in a contingent rather than an automatic way; a child who realises s/he is the product of a succession of active choices to care, rather than a necessity of nature. (The Italian Marxist-feminist and world-ecologist Daniela Danna, for example, suggests that a surrogate is a victim of ‘false consciousness’ who has ‘enslaved herself … with her own hands’ by creating a baby destined for separation from its ‘mother’.) As for me, I have more faith in children than that. And I take classic revolutionary (feminist, Marxist, afrofuturist) critiques of the private nuclear household very seriously: critiques that, ironically, were sometimes formulated by the same feminists who now feel compelled to defend the ‘natural’ family from the threat of surrogacy. 

Fifty years ago, it was commonly heard said that the liberation of women and of children are inextricable. Viewed in that light, the feminists who seek today, with all their might, to criminalise surrogacy are easily identified as just one more manifestation of ‘truncated’ anti-capitalism. Even though their condemnations of the workplace conditions faced by paid gestational labourers are well-founded, at the end of the day, what they are doing is carceral bioethics on the old neo-colonial model – not a class struggle with any kind of chance of winning reproductive justice for all. Hating a particular form of work in no way justifies attacks on those workers’ self-organisation – quite the opposite. Instead of signing ‘Stop Surrogacy Now’ petitions, we would do better to listen to the demands of surrogates, placing their perspective at the forefront of our gestational justice movements.

But as ever, when it comes to the unnatural, the whorish, the freakish, the queer, and the brazenly prosthetic, all this will come down to a question of ‘which side are you on?’ Anti-feminist conservatives everywhere (not just of the Manif Pour Tous variety) sometimes accuse feminists of cooking up communist plots to abolish the nuclear family and, by extension, the nation-state. This, in my view, is entirely correct – or ought to be. The proper object of feminist critique, since its inception, has been and remains the institution of the family and its offshoots. Don’t get me wrong: the actually existing commercial surrogacy industry – Surrogacy™ – which caters to the desire for genetic property, does anything but subvert the nuclear private family, as its conservative and frequently homophobic (and feminist) opponents fear that it will. It is just that in any struggle to actually abolish the family, it will be imperative we take the laborers on that industry’s shop floor seriously as political actors – rather than naturalising the desirability of ‘children of one’s own’ and shoring up the consumer rights of the ‘infertile’ (be they rich or poor, married or unmarried, gay or straight). They exist, these workers. It is worse than useless to flap your hands and declare that ‘some things should not be for sale’ (with the implication that other things should be for sale). The point is that, unfortunately, because we live under capitalism, they already are.

By calling for real surrogacy, or full surrogacy, I am not just trying to troll the antisurrogacy moralists. I mean a world in which the word ‘surrogacy’ would have no meaning anymore – because no procreative tie would be original, primary, securitised, or authenticated. I mean a maximal distribution of care labor, based on the recognition that we all share substance. In this sense, as one of my friends remarked recently, an alternative title for the book could have been Full Family Now: Surrogacy Against Feminism.

One of the key theoretic interventions in your book is your insistence on viewing pregnancy as alienable labour, as work. As a large number of investigative and ethnographic studies of India’s infamous ‘baby factories’ have shown – one of them serves as the core case study for Full Surrogacy Now – patriarchal and racial capitalism has lately shown that it is perfectly able to integrate a superficial recognition of this labour qua labour in the pursuit of profitability and productivity. Could you speak a little about the people employed by the Akanksha clinic, in Gujarat, India, their working conditions, their demands, and the wider struggles they might conceivably catalyse?

Currently, there are no working conditions to speak of per se, because trade has been suspended. But, between 2007 and 2016, India was the international hub for discount gestational services – ‘the world’s back-womb’ – and this particular clinic, which is located in Anand, Gujarat, became the photogenic industry figurehead. Employees were not the poorest of the poor, but they frequently chose to perform repeat gestational cycles because the pay they took home (often billed as a life-changing amount of money) was in reality only enough to support them for two to three  years. 

But ever since a 2016 (far-right BJP) judicial ruling – couched in the language of ‘women’s rights’ but going against the stated wishes of the vast majority of surrogacy labourers, who did not want the industry banned – commercial and homosexual surrogacy has been outlawed in India (although I foresee this changing again in the not-too-distant future). While commercial surrogacy was operating, payment-related abuses – deception, wage-stealing, and money-skimming – were rife at the Akanksha clinic just as they are elsewhere in the industry. The findings of two local grassroots groups, Sama and the Human Rights Law Network, documented the widespread practice of scouts and touts skimming off the (usually illiterate) surrogates’ fee. 

Surrogacy workers employed by the Akanksha clinic collaborated with a local farm-labourers’ union in order to help formulate their responses to these abuses: they should be paid as much for a baby as any surrogate working in California. And why not? The unique selling-point of the clinic, whose founder-CEO is the inimitable bioclinical ‘innovator’ and industry figurehead Dr Nayna Patel, is that it is a ‘feminist’ business. Patel has mouthed empty phrases about building a hospital ‘for the surrogates, run by the surrogates’ and she has promoted herself, on the Oprah Winfrey Show and elsewhere, as ‘absolutely a feminist’ – of the Lean In school. At the same time, she reassures consumers of surrogacy services, her clients, the ‘intended parents’ of the products her employees gestate, that ‘these females’ can be trusted because they are docile and poor: ‘they can never come knocking’ to make claims on ‘your baby’ in years to come. So, in my view, this fake ruling-class ‘feminism’ is full of blatant contradictions that could be turned, by the workers, against their boss and used as leverage. Anti-rape campaigners, dispossessed women, industrial unionists, and farm laborers have lately begun to step up the intensity of their struggles throughout India. In this climate, ‘coming knocking’ might be exactly what surrogates organise themselves to do. Leftists, meanwhile, can abet them by ‘coming knocking’ on the closed doors of neoliberal feminist ontologies.

Your defence of gestating as work is not an end in itself – it is not a means of integrating gestational labour into the formal capitalist economy – rather, it forms the starting-point of your anti-work orientation, in the same way that the Wages for Housework campaign demanded recognition for unwaged housework as a first step towards doing away with such work. You write that ‘life is probably the ultimate commodity fetish’ and account for your term ‘gestational labour’ by calling it ‘a manoeuvre intended to counteract capital’s capacity to disguise itself as progenitor’. What are the political implications of struggles seeking recognition for reproductive labours, especially in a context still shaped by extremely ‘masculinist’ imaginings of what constitutes productive labour?

One of the main reasons I stand for treating procreative labour as work we have already touched upon: the freedom, one that I hold extremely dear, not to work if one doesn’t want to. In this historic moment, it is not just infrastructure and material access to abortion (which was already scant, especially where I currently live), but even the flimsy legal and philosophical principle of a right not to do forced gestational labour, that are under attack. I feel that, as communists and feminists we have little to lose, and that we should fight back without euphemism. 

Secondly, as you have mentioned, I stand for the abolition, not only of the family, but of both work and gender, two of the things the private family is best designed to reproduce. What might struggling against work and gender (ie, racial-capitalist binary gender) look like when it comes to reproductive work? For me, it means that we will have to discover ways to minimise it, distribute it, attenuate its harms to the body, share it, and render it creative, joyous and (at minimum) non-lethal. I am in no sense anti-pregnancy. I think I’m one of the most pro-pregnancy people around, because, instead of the carnage it currently is (costing 300,000 lives a year and crippling millions more) I want it to be its best self! As Silvia Federici contends, ‘nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires’. It is not feminists like me who are responsible for this transformation. All we are doing is naming it.

Unfortunately, people are often very upset when they encounter language like ‘gestational labour.’ They ask me: when we treat pregnancy, the joy and pain of motherhood, the art of raising children, with this perspective, don’t we lose something from view – something vital? My response to this is yes, of course we lose something. There is always more than one thing in play, within any kind of labour. But, as the many-gendered, white and Black, Italian and US autonomists of the struggle against housework so often repeated to their critics, it’s not us choosing to be economistic about gestation, it’s capitalism. If we must cop to a kind of counter-economism regarding ‘what they call love,’ it is a needful demystification strategy. 

Unlike the Gender Equality policymakers of the UN, we aren’t literally totting up a bill when we utter our stick-’em-up, claiming the wages due for centuries of babymaking ‘in cash, retroactive and immediately’. We are demanding everything. That – not some pragmatic state-implemented basic income program for families – is the point of ‘serving notice’ to the expropriators. ‘Wages for all gestation-work’ is not a petition, and it does not describe an exciting destination. (Who would get that excited about wages anyway?) What it describes is a process of assault on wage society. It is a noir joke, a provocation, an insurgent orientation that is intended to expose the ludicrousness of treating work as the basis for receiving greater or smaller amounts of the means of survival. It points somewhere beyond the horizon.

Part of recognising gestational work as work, that is to say, denaturalising it, involves de-feminising it, ungendering it. This was one of the aspects of your work I personally found most exciting: the care you take to articulate a vision of feminism that might directly challenge the binarity of gender. In fact, you go so far as to state that ‘there can be no utopian thought on reproduction that does not involve uncoupling gestation from the gender binary’. You then go on to flesh out your own utopian thought on the matter, imagining a queer gestational communism that might abolish the family. What are the underlying orientations, principles and slogans of the ‘counter-social reproduction’ you envision? And how does this utopia connect to the concept of ‘a communist amniotechnics’, the parting words of your book?

Yes, my book concludes with some speculative thoughts – inspired by First Nations midwives, Donna Haraway and xenofeminism – on the amniotic and cyborg politics of water, water protection, water’s morbidity, internal and external pipelines, boundaries, and dialectics of ‘holding and letting go’. Here I echo my contention, from the introduction, that beyond the centuries-long circular debate about whether our pregnancies are ‘natural’ or ‘pathological,’ there is a gestational commune – and I want to live in it.

For Donna Haraway, ‘reproduction’ does not actually occur in the human species. It’s just our name for an individualist fantasy we have: the fantasy of copying and replicating ourselves. Obviously, infants do belong to the people who care for them in a sense, but they aren’t property. Nor is the genetic code that goes into designing them as important as many people like to think: in fact, as biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins provocatively summarise the matter, ‘DNA is not self-reproducing … it makes nothing … and organisms are not determined by it’.

The overarching principles of Full Surrogacy Now are, off the top of my head, the following. All reproduction is assisted. Everyone deserves many mothers of any and all genders (or none). Authorship can only be co-authorship. #nodads. Traditional modes of procreation are in no way superior to plural, polymaternal, adoptive and/or so-called ‘non-biological’ arts of parenting (including ‘single’ parenting, and the lesbian parenting soon to be recognised in French law). Which is to say, in Helen Hester’s terminology, xenofam ≥ biofam. Recognising our inextricably surrogated contamination with and by everybody else (and everybody else’s babies) will not so much ‘smash’ the nuclear family as make it unthinkable. 

In a just society, in other words, there could be no ‘surrogacy,’ because children would not be exclusive goods. We are the makers of one another, and we could learn to act like it. So, surrogates to the front! It is the holders – not the delusional ‘authors’, self-replicators, and ‘patenters’ – who truly people the world. By surrogates I mean all those comradely gestators, midwives, and other sundry interveners in the more slippery moments of social reproduction: bridging or creating gaps; refusing to be temporary; insisting on being temporary; swimming across borders; standing in; carrying; miscarrying. I call ‘amniotechnics’ the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. Amniotechnics is protecting water and protecting people from water in the spirit of ‘full surrogacy’ – an impossible, necessary lodestar.

Sophie Lewis is a writer and queer communist theorist living in Philadelphia. Her first book is Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Morgane Merteuil is a feminist activist based in Paris, who has been active in the defence of sex workers rights. She coordinated, with Stella Magliani-Belkacem, Felix Boggio Ewanjé-Epée and Frédéric Monferrand, the collection of Marxist-feminist essays Pour un Féminisme de la Totalité (Editions Amsterdam, 2016).